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The deadly virus has now infected just shy of five million people worldwide, claiming the lives of more than 300,000 and affecting billions more in the process. In the UK, the earliest transmission is thought to have occurred on January 28, but it was not until one month later, on February 28, that a woman in her Seventies became the first Briton to die. By March 1, there were cases reported in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, before it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) 10 days later.
This led to the closure of schools, restaurants, pubs and leisure centres, before a full lockdown was introduced by the Government on March 23 as deaths began to spike.
But, two leading UK scientists say it could have been circulating weeks earlier than the first reports among the healthy population.
Dr Amitava Banerjee of University College London told Express.co.uk that flights coming in and out of London may have been to blame, suggesting there could have been isolated cases before Christmas.
He said: “There’s undoubted evidence, particularly with our lack of testing until the end of March, that it’s quite possible we did have earlier cases.
“I work as a clinical doctor and we weren’t seeing excess deaths in hospitals during winter.
“So I would say it was early March, end of February where we started to see these, but, of course, there might have been the odd case and with London – Heathrow and other airports – being such hubs, it’s not only likely, but probable that we had many cases that we didn’t see.
“If we were seeing hundreds of deaths, per month throughout November and December, that’s something we would see in hospitals.”
But Dr Banerjee also stated that he did not experience a jump in respiratory deaths while working in a hospital.
He added: “We’re very good, as doctors, at knowing if things were getting worse, and my sense was that I don’t remember seeing more pneumonia.
“I made the shift into COVID care in late February and March, so even if we were missing care home deaths, they would have had to have started somewhere.
“However, I do think it’s quite possible that the virus was in the UK between October and December, we know that people were flying from China, Hong Kong, every day, sometimes several times a day.
“All it takes is one person, so some cases would have been possible, but lots of cases, it’s less probable, because we would have expected to see people with severe pneumonia admissions.
“But, one thing to factor into all of this is most of the people who die from COVID have been people with underlying conditions and people who are older, so this at-risk group are the people who we’ve been shielding and watching.”
Dr Banerjee said he thought the first cases from healthy individuals to the elderly started developing around January or February.
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Express.co.uk also spoke to Professor Keith Neil, an expert in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, who agreed with Dr Banerjee’s transmission theory, but placed the date a little later.
He said: “It is quite possible COVID-19 arrived in the UK much earlier than thought but it did not really start to produce lots of chains of transmission.
“This probably took off with skiers returning from Italy and Austria as in Germany.
“The excess deaths per week runs for much longer than COVID-19 earliest reports suggest.
“I think the most likely event was the skiers around February half-term, we know it was in Italy and France in large numbers, even before the Italians recognised it.
“If the virus was in the UK in October, the infection rate would go up three times every week, so within a month its exponential growth would be huge.”
Despite this, Professor Neil said there may have been the odd case at the start of the year.
He continued: “The deaths tell us what was happening a month ago, we started seeing them in the middle of March, and it wasn’t taking off until the beginning of April.
“But it’s quite possible that people came back from skiing, infected their household, and so the transmission chain tends to die, so those who don’t meet a lot of other people may not have been very infectious and didn’t go to work for a few days.
“You only need one person to start a transmission chain, which is why contract tracing is important.
“COVID-19 may have been in the country at the beginning of the year, what it wasn’t doing was transmitting successfully.”
Express.co.uk approached the Department of Health and Social Care to ask for support on pinpointing the first cluster of cases.
A Government spokeswoman added: “There is currently no evidence of sustained community transmission before January 2020.
“We are fully committed to learning more about this global pandemic, but our focus right now must remain on tackling the outbreak and saving lives.”
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